Friday, June 08, 2007

Finding Your Voice, Part 3

Time for Part 3 of this semiregular voice-finding series. In Part 1 I introduced easy reflection activities that have you recall important books and music from your youth. Then, in Part 2, I talked about how such intentional reflection can help you begin to inhabit the mind of a child (specifically, your own childhood mind), which in turn will help you work on writing for children and figuring out the audience you'd like to target.

So, moving along, assuming you've looked at the previous posts. Here's the next question I think you should ask yourself:

At what age do you think you found your personal voice?

Don't think about your writer's voice yet. That comes later. For now just concentrate on remembering when that voice in your head started. I'm talking about the inner voice you hear as you move through your day. The one that recites your grocery list and rehashes memorable conversations as you shower, drive, or try to sleep. Etc. (Note that this voice presumably sounds *just like you* and is neither alter ego nor imaginary friend.)

Having trouble pinpointing an age? Sometimes it helps to simply think about the age at which you started feeling like you. I like to ask other children's writers when this shift happened for them, and so far I've heard all ages from 4 to 30.

I once asked my father to comment. I was about 16, I think, putting Dad in his mid 40s. We weren't talking about writing or voice, but I was writing then, and my interest in the topic was directly related to my intense need to explore and express how certain defining moments in my young life had affected me.

This conversation happened just a few years into my early, earnest "This is who I am, but how on earth did I get this way?" phase — and Dad's quick and confident answer to when he started feeling like him made an impact. "Well," he said, briefly raising his eyebrows and looking to the sky, "I'd have to say 9 years old." He felt that's when his sense of responsibility kicked in (he grew up the eldest son on a small Iowa farm in the 1940s, and the entire family worked hard). So it made sense for him to choose that age as the point at which his distinct child self began to fade into the background to make way for his (self-perceived) adult self.

Now, that is not to say that he didn't progress on a normal path from childhood to adulthood. We all evolve and mature across time, no matter when we start to connect with the world. But I do believe that we all can identify breaks between major life stages — and that your breaks will not correspond to mine. It's all about your experiences and how you process them.

If you're a writer trying to connect with an authentic voice for your work, it's critical to have a good sense of your personal voice. Without it, you'll end up manufacturing your authenticity. And that approach never quite makes it. Not, at least, in any sustainable way.

I found my personal voice at about age 12. Sure, I've matured and changed — and changed back — since then (I like to think), but 12 feels to me like the break between my child and adult selves. I do have zillions of memories about events, thoughts, and feelings from earlier childhood, but 12 is when I really started to hear the voice that guides me. And I believe that's why I prefer writing for the preteen to young teen market.

Last time I discussed some of my favorite children's works. They are stellar models of age-appropriate material and writing, and they also offer strong insights into my personal writing interests. I feel at ease writing to the preteen/teen set; and I most enjoy writing heavily researched nonfiction, historical fiction, and personal essays.

How do the books you mentioned in your list play into your current writing interests?

Here's where the music reflection exercise comes in handy —

Listening to specific 70s songs really helps me feel those childhood thoughts and experiences. It makes writing from a child's perspective (for fiction) and focusing on the types of scenarios and information a child will relate to (for fiction and nonfiction) that much easier.

For example, when I hear the 1977 Hall & Oates single "Rich Girl," I might as well be lounging on a floor cushion in my best friend's Asian-themed rec room. On at least one afternoon a week, you could find the two of us there laying out our (12-year-old!) convictions about everything from what went wrong on the playground that day — to world hunger — to gender roles — to how we expected to "be" as adults. We would lament that nobody gave us credit for being the grown-ups we so clearly were. Then we'd decide to prank call Jenny,* a frosty-white-nail-polish-and-rabbit-fur-vest-wearing snot of a girl who lived in my friend's neighborhood.

Jenny spent a great deal of time looking down her new nose at everyone while divulging details of her father's hefty income, bragging about all the cool stuff she had, and coldly judging the girls who couldn't afford to dress better.

What could be a better use of two eager-to-crusade girls' after-school time than getting Jenny on the horn and blasting "Rich Girl" in her ear? Certainly not pretending to be the radio station awarding a free Big Mac to the callee who recited the ubiquitous super burger's slogan faster than anyone else. You try: "Two all beef patties special sauce lettuce cheese pickles onions on a sesame seed bun." Think you said it faster than the last guy? You didn't.

To write effectively, I need to be able to tap in to all the feelings — mature, immature, and otherwise — associated with being 12. I need to inhabit and illuminate the 12-year-old's world. A significant-to-me song from my youth helps because it drops me into a memorable situation that I can still describe 30 years later. I won't necessarily ever write a scene focused on the same situation, but I can use the energy and the insight to inform a character's motivations. Times change, yes, but kids' core experiences, feelings, and growing pains are timeless and universal. So whenever there's something I can do to bring out my genuine been-there insight about a child character's mindset or actions, I do it.

Music works wonders for me. Do you think it can work for you? And do you think it can help you identify your best age-group niche? Try taking another look at your Part 1 song list to see which tunes might drop you back into an easily describable situation. I think you'll be surprised at your own treasure trove of material.

*Name changed to protect the formerly stuck up

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